The CIO of the Natural History Museum on its new digital data ecosystem

When it comes to ecosystems, staff at the Natural History Museum in London are generally more interested in those that support biodiversity in the world around us. But the museum’s technical team is currently working with AWS on a cloud-based ecosystem that will bring UK environmental data together on a single platform to help scientists with their research.

The Natural History Museum is working with AWS to create a digital data ecosystem. (Photo by Hal Gamble/Shutterstock)

On Monday, the Natural History Museum announced a new digital partnership with AWS, Amazon’s public cloud platform, which it hopes will help transform the Museum’s scientific research and community science capabilities. , and to better understand the UK’s biodiversity and environment. There will be a particular focus on the UK’s urban biodiversity, including its composition, how it relates to environmental conditions, and how it responds to direct conservation action.

“Working with AWS to grow the data ecosystem will revolutionize the scientific work we undertake at the museum,” said Dr John Tweddle, director of the Angela Marmont Center for UK Biodiversity at the Natural History Museum. “Data will be an essential tool to unlock new solutions to the planetary ecological emergency; from monitoring UK wildlife to pursuing the scientific recovery of nature in our cities and towns.

Technical monitor spoke to Richard Hinton, CIO at the Natural History Museum, to learn more about the project.

The digital strategy of the Natural History Museum is taking shape

Hinton assumed the role of CIO full-time in July, having held the position on a temporary basis since March. He leads a technical team of 60 people who provide support to the 900 employees of the Natural History Museum. “We cover everything from network to cloud to business analytics, [to] managing the cloud and records of information, and interfacing with other digital teams such as science computing and our digital media team,” he says. “There are digital skills throughout the museum, but the enterprise level is my responsibility.”

Digital is an essential part of the visitor experience for the five million people who visit the Natural History Museum each year. It also plays a key role for staff, including the 350 scientists who are based at the museum and conduct environmental research.

For Hinton, this means the museum should be “digital by default” when it comes to undertaking new projects. “Our museum strategy for the next ten years is based on five pillars around how we conduct research and engage people,” he says. “Across all of these ambitions, it’s clear that technology will be a key enabler, whether in digital delivery, data services or just plain IT infrastructure.

“That means we have to be digital by default, so when I look at a project I know there will be a technology element, and the challenge is to talk about that and define the requirements up front. never anything to get involved in, and that’s one of the best parts of the job.

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As for the cloud, Hinton says the museum has a mix of virtual and on-premises infrastructure. “We weren’t early adopters because at the time we were limited by skills and resources,” he says. “So where others have gone for leather in the cloud, we’ve been able to be more tactical and deliberate, and learn from what others have done. We still advocate for SaaS or PaaS where possible.”

This is getting easier as more vendors focus solely on SaaS solutions, the CIO says, but the museum continues to modernize a number of legacy systems. “One of the main complexities we face is technical debt and the scope of our business,” says Hinton. “You have to decide whether to modernize these old systems or remove them, because what we want to do is…smart stuff like the data ecosystem and change the way we search and interact with people, without having to deal with the ‘tin’, as we have done in the past.

He adds: “When I started you had some of these clichéd things of people going out and buying tech solutions and only involving IT later in the process – you end up trying to connect things with string and pots of yogurt.

“But you can’t maintain that complexity with a small organization, and I think over the years we’ve definitely matured and are much more cohesive in terms of thinking about how we reuse and share services.”

How the data ecosystem will change research at the Natural History Museum

The data ecosystem promises to be one of the largest shared services built by the museum to date. It will be open to scientists at the museum, as well as those based at its partner institutes across the UK. The aim is to help researchers better understand the UK’s urban biodiversity, including its composition, its link to environmental conditions and how it responds to direct conservation action.

Hinton explained that the platform was created as part of the Urban Nature Project, a public outreach program which involves the museum working with cities across the UK to help protect and develop their natural environments.

“We’ve already done many individual community projects where the public makes observations and submits information, and we’ve done separate things where we collect data directly from devices and sensors and send it to a lab,” he said. “But we’ve never done anything like that. We wanted to create something where we put all of this data cohesively together in one place so it was easily searchable. »

The platform will allow scientists to bring together datasets from a specific city or urban area so they can visualize the broader context of their research and the biodiversity in that area. “You could have a DNA sample from soil or water, and you could cross-reference it with what people saw or heard in their gardens at that time,” Hinton says. “You’ll also be able to view data from local weather stations, so you’ll have context on light and temperature conditions. This allows you to build a ‘digital twin’ of the environment.

Hosting the ecosystem in the cloud will allow the museum to scale it easily as it grows, potentially making it available to other research institutions, Hinton said. It’s been in iterative delivery since August, and Hinton hopes to have a minimum viable product in service early next year.

“It’s been a journey of discovery,” says Hinton. “What’s been particularly amazing is putting a subject matter expert with a tech expert – if you can get them to speak the same language, that’s when the magic happens, and it’s been inspiring to have them see it get down to business and discuss what it takes to get results for scientists.”

Natural History Museum AWS Powered Garden

The UNP will also see the museum grounds transformed, with an on-site learning and activity center to host science activities, powered by AWS. The UNP gardens will provide “living galleries” in which museum scientists can develop and test new methods to monitor, protect and enrich the urban nature that is so important to human well-being.

Artist’s impression of what the UNP garden will look like. (Photo courtesy of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London)

Visual and environmental observations based on the DNA of plants and fauna, as well as environmental and acoustic monitoring data from a network of high spatial resolution sensors in the gardens of the museum, will be organized and made available in the data ecosystem. This will allow museum scientists to build scientific evidence of the impacts that habitat creation, restoration and translocation are having on UK urban wildlife, from grasslands to pond habitats. The gardens will be open to the public next year.

Read more: Why AI has become “mission essential” for CIOs

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